Photographing the new South Africa

A report from Johannesburg.

There's a moment in the South African writer Ivan Vladislavic's 2006 memoir Portrait With Keys in which he describes the arrival of a new black resident on Blenheim Street in the Kensington neighbourhood of Johannesburg. (Kensington is one of several scruffy, scrubby, low-rise suburbs that stretch east of the city's central business district.) It's the early 1990s, and the ethnic physiognomy of Kensington and neighbourhoods like it is changing as the country prepares for its first multi-racial, democratic elections in 1994. Vladislavic notices that the new arrivals at No. 10 Blenheim Street have employed a woman to "paint a Ndebele design on their garden wall". Later, when the mural is finished, he wishes he'd documented its composition:

It would have made a wonderful photographic essay ... That intricate pattern, vibrant and complex as stained glass ... spreading out, segment by segment over a blank white wall. What a metaphor for the social transformation we were living through.

Using photography to document the "social transformation" that South Africa, and its largest city in particular, continues to undergo is one of the aims of a major exhibition that will open at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in April. "Figures and Fictions", co-curated by the art historian Tamar Garb and the V&A's Martin Barnes, will present work by 17 photographers (from established names such as David Goldblatt and Pieter Hugo to newcomers like Zanele Muholi and Sabelo Mlangeni) that responds in different ways to what Garb sees as the country's "powerful rethinking of issues of identity across race, gender, class and politics".

Several of the photographers are especially interested in recording the impressions that these convulsive changes have left on the urban fabric of Johannesburg. Sabelo Mlangeni, for instance, records the lives of the residents of a men-only workers' hostel in the city in a series of images entitled "Men Only". I spent five days in Johannesburg last week, during which I met Mlangeni and accompanied him on a walking tour of the city's downtown, an area abandoned in some haste by white businesses in the mid-1990s, after the collapse of apartheid. Many of the office buildings those businesses left behind (forsaking them for the secure compounds of the northern suburbs), most of them dangerous and insanitary, have been turned into homes, mainly by black migrants - from both rural South Africa (Mlangeni himself was born and raised in the eastern province of Mpumalanga, near the border with Swaziland) and elsewhere on the continent. These people aren't squatters, however; they pay rent for their tiny rooms, often to criminal landlords (a phenomenon portrayed in Ralph Ziman's 2008 film Jerusalema and Rehad Desai's documentary The Battle for Johannesburg).

Mlangeni showed us the building he'd lived in when he first arrived in Joburg several years ago. A flyblown, four-storey block in which children raced up and down the stairwells and shouted at us from broken windows. He also took us to the Wolhuter Men's Hostel in Jeppestown, similar to the one he photographed in "Men Only" and only a couple of miles, in fact, from Ivan Vladislavic's home in Kensington. The residents here are all Zulus, from the province of KwaZulu-Natal. Judging by the number of young men thronging the hostel's filthy courtyard, few of them have succeeded in finding work - the reason they came to Joburg in the first place. Unemployment in South Africa in the last quarter of 2010 stood at 25.3 per cent (and the figure is higher for black South Africans). This is a reminder that, as Tamar Garb puts it, "the advent of democracy [in South Africa] ... has not been enough to counter the social and political hardships of people, both citizens and foreigners, and that the safeguarding of the rights and livelihoods of all its inhabitants ... remains an ongoing struggle and challenge".


Sabelo Mlangeni lived in this decrepit block when he first arrived in Johannesburg.


Sabelo Mlangeni, Johannesburg, 17 January 2010.


Children in the block across the street. Below, the Wolhuter Men's Hostel in Jeppestown, Johannesburg. (Photographs by Jonathan Derbyshire)




Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood